UCLA Children’s Digital Media Center Analyzes Children’s ‘Chat Rooms’; Director Warns Parents About Widespread Talk of Sex in Cyber Chat Rooms

September 19, 2002

“Sex is on the minds of many adolescents, and we are seeing this core developmental issue reflected in the chat rooms,” said Greenfield, director of a new National Science Foundation-funded Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA. “With both sex and race, we may be seeing thoughts and feelings that, because they are considered socially unacceptable, only come out in a medium where everyone is totally anonymous and there are no adult monitors.”

“I think we will see what the innermost concerns of children are, and how those concerns change between childhood and adolescence,” Greenfield said. “We hope to get deeper than researchers have before into the hidden lives of teenagers. What do teenagers do when they are together? Chat can tell us that, and most adults don’t get to see what teenagers do when they’re together.”

The Children’s Digital Media Center that Greenfield heads studies the virtual worlds that children create with the Internet and how those virtual worlds relate to their real-world lives and development. In addition to analyzing transcripts from teen and children’s chat rooms, researchers with the UCLA center are studying 7th and 10th graders to learn what they do on the Internet and how their use of the Internet relates to their social life in the real world.

The research team studying the culture of chat includes Greenfield and Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate professor of child and family studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and Brendesha Tynes, a UCLA doctoral student in education. The project studying 7th and 10th graders’ use of the Internet is led by Elisheva Gross, a UCLA doctoral student in developmental and social psychology.

The center will also study the neural basis for the development of children’s understanding of social relations when presented on video. This team is led by Alan Fiske, a UCLA professor of anthropology. It includes Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni, two faculty members of the UCLA Brain Mapping Center; Jennifer Pfeifer, a UCLA doctoral student in developmental psychology; and Greenfield.

The Children’s Digital Media Center, funded for five years, is one of the first three center grants awarded by the National Science Foundation in integrative developmental science. The center is interdisciplinary and includes researchers and students from UCLA departments of psychology, anthropology, education, and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.

Greenfield and her colleagues hope the center’s research will contribute to public policy decisions and parental practice. For example, in a chat room monitored by adults, “sexuality was still the most important topic of conversation, but it was much less explicit and degrading than in the unmonitored chat room,” Greenfield said. “Racism was also absent from the monitored site.”

This difference between monitored and unmonitored chat rooms has implications for policy and practice. For example, parents may choose a paid Internet service that provides adults to monitor child and teen chat rooms over a free service that does not provide adult monitors. A comparison of monitored and unmonitored teen chat is just one of the research projects that will be carried out by the Children’s Digital Media Center.

“One of the reasons I want to study chat,” Greenfield said, “is that while many children and adolescents use chat, very few parents have ever been in a chat room, or even know what it is. Parents should know what is happening, and be involved. They need to be aware of what their children are doing in chat rooms, and be aware of the possible dangers, as well as the benefits. Some children are not ready for the content they will find there.”

A chat room is a “room” in cyberspace where people congregate for online conversations, writing messages and reading messages from other people. Multiple conversations take place simultaneously and anonymously. Each person adopts a screen name, creating an identity for himself or herself. Pseudo screen names — like SwimteamBabe, Cinnamon, Ojenny, ArcAngel and Dangerous — are indicative of the types of identity that teen chat room participants often express, Greenfield said. Although people in teen chat rooms often ask others to identify themselves by age, sex and location in the coded lexicon of chat — “a/s/l/” — they cannot truly know who the others are.

For this reason, research on the culture of chat is complemented in the Children’s Digital Media Center by the use of interviews and diaries to study how known groups of teens actually use the Internet at different ages. This latter program of research is headed up by Elisheva Gross, a UCLA graduate student in developmental and social psychology. Gross relates different kinds of Internet use by 7th and 10th graders to the real-world social life and social identity of adolescents, as this differs from teen to teen and from day to day.

Greenfield — an expert in developmental psychology who has published on children and computers, video games and television — believes the Children’s Digital Media Center can provide a unique window into an important world for children and teens, the world of electronic media. “This is a world that both affects and reflects their development,” she said. “A developmental approach to media will be central to the research carried out at the Children’s Digital Media Center.”

Although the center’s research is in its early stages, Greenfield already offers a piece of advice to parents concerned about their children’s use of chat rooms and the Internet:

“It’s better not to have a computer in the child’s room, but to keep it in a more public room,” Greenfield said. “It’s also important to discuss with your children what they are doing on the Internet.”

Greenfield notes that with Internet facilities, such as chat, e-mail, instant messaging and bulletin boards, users are “constructing the medium” rather than viewing something that someone else has created.

“Video games are interactive, but they allow you only certain possibilities,” she said. “The Internet is much less restrictive.”

The UCLA center is one part of a four-university consortium that, together, make up the Children’s Digital Media Center. Other parts of the NSF-funded center will study related issues. Georgetown University, the lead campus, is studying how interactive digital media experiences affect children’s long-term social adjustment, academic achievement and identity construction, and how interactions with digital technologies affect children’s learning (under the direction of psychology professor Sandra Calvert). Centers at the University of Texas, Austin, and Northwestern University are studying emerging digital media technology, tracking children longitudinally in media use patterns and linking those patterns to social adjustment and academic success over time. The University of Texas research is under the direction of Ellen Wartella and Elizabeth Vandewater, and the Northwestern research is under the direction of Barbara O’Keefe.


Stuart Wolpert


Phone: 310-206-0511